March 2018 will see the opening of our our new national museum, Being Brunel. Excitement is building as after five years' work on the project, soon all that has been discovered about Isambard Kingdom Brunel will be presented to the public; uncovering him in all his fascinating and complex glory.
Read on as Rhian Tritton, Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education and Deputy CEO, picks out five incredible items going on display in Being Brunel that tell us more about the hero engineer.
The Locked Diary
Long since unlocked, Brunel started this diary when he was in his twenties. He confides his dreams and ambitions, as well as his fears, in a very candid way. The diary was hugely important in informing our ideas about Brunel’s character, as the Brunel it represents is a contrast to the public image he cultivated, of a confident engineer.
Brunel’s school report
This is a fascinating glimpse into Brunel before he was the Brunel we know. He was educated in France, so that he could have a good technical education, and he appears to have worked hard. He excelled at maths, and his teachers (with marvellous foresight) predicted that he would achieve great things.
Cigar case and ‘last cigar’
This wonderful object is constantly fascinating – I never grow tired of looking at it. It’s marked IK Brunel, Athenaeum Club, Pall Mall, and is very worn outside and in. The fact that it’s so worn is one of the most exciting things about it; it makes it very easy to imagine Brunel carrying it around with him during his 20-hour days, chain-smoking cigars (it holds 48, a day’s supply for him) and rushing from place to place.
Brunel portrait by Howlett in front of the Great Eastern chains
This is such a well-known image that I thought it was impossible to see it in a new light. However, the more I learn about Brunel, the more fascinating this photo becomes; it’s clear to me now that it’s a controlled and calculated presentation of an image, and doesn’t show the 3D Brunel, who we’ve discovered from his diaries and letters.
These are redolent of Brunel’s working life. Each one is stamped ‘IKB Duke Street’ and it’s easy to imagine them being used by Brunel’s staff. Drawing curves were used in drawing offices until this century, when computer aided design took over, so there is a marvellous sense of the continuity of engineering practice in these humble objects.